Collaboration, Collective Art Practice, and When To Go it Alone

By Katharine Hawthorne


Dance making is an inherently collective and collaborative art practice.  Our professional structures focus on supporting dance companies; our training is group oriented, placing students into classes based on age and ability.  Despite the implicit collectivism in the performing arts, our landscape promotes individual artistic voices and is dominated by hierarchies: director – dancer; teacher – student; emerging, mid-career, established.  I am curious about our collective ecosystem and how we choose to engage with, or disregard, the rich social, political, and art historical traditions surrounding collective art practice.

Prior to the 17th and 18th century, art making was not considered a separate activity from craft or skill.  Artists were organized into guilds, which controlled the practice of a craft and the sale of associated objects or services.  Our modern conception of art as an aesthetic pursuit related to self-expression resulted from social transformations in the 18th century (or so argues Larry Shiner in The Invention of Art).  “Art” as we know it is deeply connected to the autonomy of individual artists.  Think of the cult of personality around dancer/choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky versus the collective identity of a Russian folk dance troupe.

Contemporary ideas about collective art practice can be traced back to avant-garde movements such as Futurism, Dada, and the Situationists.  The cooperative aspects of these movements can be seen as reactions to “the cult of the individual” as well as attempts to counter the competitive nature of capitalist culture.  Collective art practice promises democratic decision making and equal opportunity for participants.  Many of the performance scores of the Fluxus Movement reflect collective political and social aims.

Some might argue that dance is still in the guild state of economic and artistic development, and I would agree that many of our training systems focus on building a technical skill set.  However dance training today at many Bay Area institutions such as the SF Conservatory of Dance and the Alternative Conservatory at Kunst-Stoff Arts address much more than the physical craft of dancing, focusing on the development of the artist as an individual.  I am one of a handful of dancers spearheading PEER Practices, a summer project of Alternative Conservatory that attempts to rethink how adult dancers train together, resourcing collective energy to reach individual goals.

Collective and collaborative art practice is in the ethos of the Bay Area, and while it springs from the politically and socially charged roots charted above, I often feel that making and producing work together is done out of convenience as opposed to an understanding of how or why collective practice suits a particular project or artistic aim.

I have a stake in these issues as both a mover and a maker.  As a dancer I have questions about how I show up for the artists for whom I work – how do I train for them, what do I offer them collaboratively in rehearsal, and in what ways am I working collectively with other dancers?  As a choreographer, I want to create a space that allows performers to offer themselves fully and collaboratively as movers and people, at the same time I want to advance my individual artistic objectives.  I have experienced collective production processes (such as the ODC Pilot), as well as collaborative art making.  Despite the enormous amount I have learned from working with others, I ultimately value most highly my self-production experiences, where I have assumed full solitary responsibility for my work and its presentation.

We work in a collective but hierarchical system, which is at the same time deeply cooperative and driven by the ambition and artistic vision of singular individuals.  In this sense the performing arts combine multiple art historical threads, offering dance artists the opportunity to work collectively, collaboratively, or to go it alone.

Katharine Hawthorne is a San Francisco based dancer and choreographer who likes to watch thinking bodies in motion.